It’s a rare game that can make me laugh out loud. Alf Seegert’s The Road to Canterbury managed it no fewer than a half-dozen times. The setting shoulders plenty of that load. As medieval pardoners, it’s your task to earn some coin from pilgrims as they journey to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket — except you happen to be the most miserable brand of fraud alive. Everything about you is a fake. Your certificates of pardon, the “sins” you’ve convinced the pilgrims burden their immortal souls, and certainly the furball of Saint Felix you’re passing off as a holy relic. Appropriately, the only score that matters is how many shillings you’ve bilked.
There’s something remarkable about holding an illuminated manuscript. It isn’t just the work itself, the artistry, the history leafed onto the pages. It’s the additional histories that crowd around the first. The scribbled notes. The stain of a fingerprint. The places where the paint has worn thin from dozens of fingers brushing the image of Jesus, or where a self-righteous fingernail has censored Eve’s privates.
Or the killer rabbits warring in the margins.
In true dedication to the apostils of history, Alf Seegert’s Illumination is about the latter. Two monks, one upstanding and the other irreverent, passing the days via the mortal contest of ensuring that their illustrations will endure for an age. How do they conduct this contest? By pitting rabbits against monks, squirrels against hounds, demons against angels. Naturally. How else?
History is shot through with unintentional ironies. In response to political meddling in church affairs, English monasteries tended to be isolated on cliffs and islands, all the better for devoting time to God and avoiding the bickering of minor kings. In board game terms, they were located on the edge of the map. This solution worked — right up until June 793, when ships of Northmen made landfall and sacked the lightly-defended abbey on Lindisfarne before anybody from the mainland could respond. So much for keeping your back to the wall.
Alain Pradet and Damien Fleury’s Lindisfarne has nothing to do with that particular raid or its aftermath. It’s a dice game. A particularly clear-headed dice game that highlights both how to do dice properly and how to fail to generate much lasting interest.
Two titles isn’t enough to tell, but I’m beginning to think Hassan Lopez’s talent might lie in reduction. That sounds too negative. Rendering? Distillation? Refining? Sublimation? No, reduction must serve.
Like Clockwork Wars before it, Maniacal takes an idea and reduces it to its most essential. In Clockwork Wars, magic, technology, and religion were reduced to special buildings and their bonuses, but in an especially clever way that placed them inside the game world, both concrete and vulnerable. Maniacal does something similar for its Evil Genius simulator. Nearly every detail feels like there could have been more. Except, when placed in parallel, those parts accrete into something so smooth, so sparing, so — yes, I’m going to say it again — reduced, that anything extra would have been as vestigial as a hangnail.
There’s no mistaking what Escape Plan wants you thinking about when you crack open its box. It quotes its influences right there in the rulebook. Heist, Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, Reservoir Dogs, the old Italian Job, the even older Ocean’s 11. This is a heist gone wrong, it tells you. This is a nobody can trust nobody else type of situation. The police are on your tail and they have an order to shoot on sight.
Then, without irony, it hands you a list of errands. “Swing by the Stop-N-Go for baby Tylenol. Make sure you grab a card and some colorful balloons for Fat Moe’s birthday. Then return this book on money laundering to the library for me. But be at the party by five or it’s lights out for you. Oh, and make sure you don’t turn left too often; the car’s tie rod is out of alignment.”
Welcome to Vital Lacerda’s Escape Plan.
There’s a certain enchanting quality to Alf Seegert’s latest, Rival Realms. Set in a sort of pocket dimension of Seegert’s wonder-realm of Fantastiqa — and literally sliding into a large pocket, how’s that for appropriate? — and expounding upon the card-laying system he first crafted in Musée, it’s an otherworldly experience, as though its players have left their concerns hanging in the wardrobe and stepped straight into Narnia.
If you were to tell me that you’d designed a cooperative stealth game about breaking out of some impenetrable locale, saturated with guards who moved according to programmed logic that I had to evaluate and preempt, and that much of the gameplay revolved around gradually uncovering the layout of the map and assembling codes to break through certain critical areas, my first reaction would be to ask why I’m not just playing more Burgle Bros. Because Burgle Bros. is a lot of fun and — bonus! — it already exists.
The Daedalus Sentence now also exists. And in some ways, that’s all I want to say about it.
One of the things I most appreciate about Alf Seegert’s work — at least across the slight handful of his games I’ve played — is how he takes very relatable and approachable concepts and transforms them into something more. Take Dingo’s Dreams, for example. It’s bingo, the very same one your grandma plays for day-glo pens with puffy feathers sticking out the end, yet in Seegert’s hands it becomes one of the breeziest light titles of the year. Or Fantastiqa, a deck-building game that embraces its whimsical side with such abandon that it’s hard not to like it.
Heir to the Pharaoh is Doc Seegert’s latest game, and also his greatest by a significant margin. So let’s talk.
Clockwork Wars is the sort of game that might not survive the first glance. “Looks like a pared-down version of Archipelago,” one of my friends said when he first walked into the room, which is a longtime cardboard enthusiast’s version of “Looks like Settlers of Catan,” the proper reaction to any game featuring colorful hexes. And while Clockwork Wars holds nothing in common with Archipelago (or Catan), my friend wasn’t wrong. Colorful hexes and counters aren’t enough to set you apart in today’s golden age of colorful hexes and counters.
That’s where the second glance and the third glance come in, because Clockwork Wars absolutely survives those.
Our modern sensibilities may protest all they like, but it’s a fact of human nature that we as a species absolutely love the prospect of racing headlong into the unknown, finding people dissimilar to ourselves, and swiping all their stuff. And Empires: Age of Discovery, the spiritual reincarnation (and license sidestep) of Glen Drover’s 2007 board game Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery, understands this fact deep down in the pit of its belly.